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Caveat lector

15 May 1998

A Howler retrospective: In which we stop to take a look back at a (miserable) Day One Hubbell story

Synopsis: We always like to apply what we've learned. And so we look back at Sue Schmidt's Day One story about the Hubbell phone calls.

Jail Tapes Depict Hubbell as Clinton Loyalist Susan Schmidt and John Mintz, The Washington Post, 5/1/98

We've claimed that the press corps displayed groaning bad judgment in rushing those bogus Burton transcripts into print: in writing up David Bossie's imaginative transcripts without checking them first against the tapes.

And we've also claimed that, as is their wont, the press corps engaged in an orgy of false conclusions--drew endless conclusions about what the tapes meant that are unsustained by the facts.

Out of curiosity, we took a look back at Susan Schmidt's Day One piece, in which she first described the Hubbell phone calls. We thought you might be intrigued to take a look back and see how her piece shapes up now.

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraphs one and two): He may have been in jail, but Webster L. Hubbell still saw himself as a Clinton loyalist.

Talking to his wife in 1996 while in a federal prison serving out his sentence for embezzling from his former clients and partners at Little Rock's Rose Law Firm, Hubbell repeatedly expressed concern for one of those former partners: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Our review: We don't offer major complaint so far, but we question the use of the word "repeatedly." As we now know, there were about 100 hours of tapes in all, and Schmidt had only reviewed segments that the committee spoon-fed her. How can she say that Hubbell "repeatedly" expressed concern when she has reviewed so few of the tapes? (And why did the concern repeatedly turn up in the transcripts? Because that's the story the committee wanted Schmidt to write.)

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraph 3): "I will not raise those allegations that might open it up to Hillary," Hubbell told his wife Suzanna in one phone call, responding to a White House friend's fear that his dispute with the law firm could create problems for the first lady. "So I need to roll over one more time."

Our review: Note here how Schmidt turns immediately to passages that the committee has highlighted for her. The editing here is being done by politicians, not by The Washington Post. Note also the vagueness of Schmidt's account. What kind of "problems" could the dispute cause Mrs. Clinton? What does Hubbell mean in his reference to "rolling over?" Schmidt does not say because she does not know--at least in part because she has not reviewed the tapes in any detail.

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraph 4): That loyalty is one of the most striking themes to emerge in a series of recorded, behind-bars conversations Hubbell had in 1996 with his closest confidants--selectively-edited portions of which were made available yesterday by the Republican majority of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

Our review: Here we touch on the nature of the transcripts' editing--a topic the writers fudge throughout. What does Schmidt mean when she says the transcripts are "selectively edited?" Since all editing, presumably, is somehow "selective," what does the choice of words mean to imply? Is she expressing concern that the transcripts have been edited in such a way as to be misleading? If she is concerned about that, why isn't it discussed in detail? (We now know, by the way, that the committee would not let Schmidt and other journalists make copies of complete transcripts. Why didn't Schmidt speak to that?)

The vague account of the transcripts' editing continues later in the piece:

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraph 9): In many of the conversations, the Republicans produced their own paraphrasing of the discussion.

Our review: What does that mean? Did they produce paraphrases in addition to the transcripts, or in place of the transcripts? This clearly makes a massive difference, but the matter is never made clear.

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraph 10): Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, complained last night that Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind) did not allow the minority to review the transcripts before releasing them. The GOP, he added, is "trying to smear Webb Hubbell" by producing selective portions that could be open to interpretation.

Our review: Incoherence reigns again. Since even a full transcript "could be open to interpretation," it is not clear what is meant by this last formulation. It's too bad the writers didn't simply quote Waxman all the way through; no doubt his full statement was more clear than their paraphrase. Did Waxman assert what we later learned to be true--that the edited portions were deliberately misleading? Why would such a claim have produced no greater effort at evaluation from the writers?

We read on. Schmidt starts discussing the contents of the phone calls, and the problems begin to emerge.

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraph 15): ...And (Hubbell) promised to keep secrets out of a book he had contracted to write--eventually, and appropriately, called "Friends in High Places."

Our review: We again meet the problem of vagueness. What kind of "secrets" did he pledge to keep out of his book? The kind of personal, family secrets that political readers would have no right to hear? Or the kind of "secrets" that might have real political or criminal implications? Schmidt, again, does not know, so she gives her reader this absurdly vague formulation. The problem: the formulation, being vague, tells us nothing at all, yet allows people to think they've been told of skullduggery. This is awful, terrible, insinuative writing--far worse than writing nothing at all.

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraph 17): But Scott had conveyed a message to Hubbell through his wife: He is " ‘not going to get any public support if you open up Hillary to all this.' " Said Suzy Hubbell, "Well, by public support I know exactly what she means. I'm not stupid."

Our review: Now we're in the soup up to our ears. In the first place, Schmidt is misquoting Mrs. Hubbell here; this is one of the transcripts where the Burton Gang had some fun, and Schmidt is misreporting what Mrs. Hubbell actually said. Beyond that, Schmidt asserts in her first sentence that Scott had conveyed a message through Mrs. Hubbell; she does not tell us that Scott later disputed the "message" that Mrs. Hubbell conveyed. She does not tell us this because the conversation in which Scott does this is one of the conversations the committee held back from Schmidt. Schmidt is willingly being played for a fool, and her readers are being misled in the process. And, by the way, we again hit the problem of massive vagueness; Schmidt has Mrs. Hubbell saying that she knows what Scott means by "public support," but no one tells us what Scott meant--no one tells us what Mrs. Hubbell thought Scott meant by the term, or whether Mrs. Hubbell's interpretation was accurate. What is the purpose of quoting a statement whose meaning is completely unclear?

SCHMIDT AND MINTZ (paragraphs 21 and 22): Then, his wife asked if exploring overbillings would create problems for Hillary Clinton.

He didn't answer, saying, "We're on a recorded phone, Suzy."

Our review: Here again Schmidt takes her readers for a ride. Hubbell answers that question in great detail later on. But the committee didn't pass out that transcript to the writers, and they didn't go to the trouble of hearing the full tapes before they passed on the selective account of the tapes they'd been handed.

Were Washington Post readers given accurate information about the contents of these phone calls? The question answers itself. Schmidt and Mintz pass on doctored quotes and selective material, carefully picked out by political partisans to give a misleading account of the calls. The good news: the writers got their story out fast. The bad news: their work is horrible--worse than blank space.

For Susan Schmidt's statement that she doesn't know what more she could have done, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/98. We repeat here what we said at that time. The big story on the day that Schmidt wrote this story was the fact that the committee was handing out misleading, doctored transcripts. That story was right under Susan Schmidt's nose. But guess what? Because no one typed it up and handed it out, Susan Schmidt and John Mintz didn't get it! And because they obediently typed up the drek they were handed, their readers were given misleading accounts. Just another day in what we do love to call: "Life in this celebrity press corps."